Wednesday, October 17, 2018

27. The Final Countdown

"According to Matthew”
A study of the Gospel of Matthew
Part 27: The Final Countdown

Chapter 26 is one of the longest chapters in the Bible. It details the events that lead up to the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. That means there will be a lot more bible reading and a little less commentary in this study! But let us begin the final countdown by setting the scene and reading verses 1 thru 5.

 Matthew 26:1 When Jesus had finished saying all these things, he said to his disciples,  "As you know, the Passover is two days away--and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified."  Then the chief priests and the elders of the people assembled in the palace of the high priest, whose name was Caiaphas, and they schemed to arrest Jesus secretly and kill him.  "But not during the festival," they said, "or there may be a riot among the people."
Jesus speaks of the inevitability of His crucifixion. It was just a matter of timing. His fate has been sealed by the chief priests. But as He approaches the Cross there are things that need to be taken care of. Let us continue with verses 6 thru 13.

 While Jesus was in Bethany in the home of Simon the Leper,  a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, which she poured on his head as he was reclining at the table. When the disciples saw this, they were indignant. "Why this waste?" they asked.  "This perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor."  Aware of this, Jesus said to them, "Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me.  The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me.  When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial.  Truly I tell you, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her."

The beautiful thing this anonymous woman has done for Jesus is anointing Him for His burial. Such was a dignity that would be denied to Him when the time actually came. She sees the urgency of the moment, but the disciples are still in denial, despite the plain speaking of Jesus that He will be handed over to the authorities and be crucified.

It isn't quite clear why the disciples are so angry at the woman. It could be because they realize what she is doing, but don't want to face it. It may be that they have a genuine concern for the poor, but that's not a trait they have been upfront in demonstrating in their past. At the 'Feeding of the 5000' their first reaction was “Lord, send them home!” There's also something uncomfortable about the fact that they are quite willing to take this woman's perfume and sell it, rather than have it used in the way it was designed for. Permeating the whole passage is an air of self-righteous disapproval of the woman, her actions and even of the very existence of expensive perfumes.

There is tendency when we here of a person who passes away and leaves some extravagant amount to a cause we may not personally identify with, to say 'Imagine giving all that to a cat's home!” We never know what a persons motives may be. It's not for us to pass judgment on folks extravagance. 'Judge not' suggested Jesus' “That ye be not  judged!' (Matt 7:1). After all, look what happens next. Read verses 14-16

Then one of the Twelve--the one called Judas Iscariot--went to the chief priests  and asked, "What are you willing to give me if I deliver him over to you?" So they counted out for him thirty pieces of silver.  From then on Judas watched for an opportunity to hand him over.

Centuries earlier, the prophet Zechariah, having given up on any hope of changing the minds of the leaders of Israel, had been offered thirty pieces of silver as payment for his services. Zecheriah 11:8-13.

 In one month I got rid of the three shepherds. The flock detested me, and I grew weary of them  and said, "I will not be your shepherd. Let the dying die, and the perishing perish. Let those who are left eat one another's flesh."  Then I took my staff called Favor and broke it, revoking the covenant I had made with all the nations.  It was revoked on that day, and so the oppressed of the flock who were watching me knew it was the word of the LORD.  I told them, "If you think it best, give me my pay; but if not, keep it." So they paid me thirty pieces of silver.  And the LORD said to me, "Throw it to the potter"--the handsome price at which they valued me! So I took the thirty pieces of silver and threw them to the potter at the house of the LORD. (Zec 11:8-13 NIV)

Though he calls it a “handsome price” he is being ironic. He throw's the money into the house of the LORD where “the potter” would receive it. '30 pieces of silver' also had a legal significance.

In Exodus 21 there are rules concerning the keeping of dangerous animals. If you have been negligent and let out an ox who kills a servant then your own life is forfeit. You ought to die but you can ransom yourself from death by paying thirty pieces of silver. In so doing, you, the guilty one, are redeemed and the servant 's life is considered atoned for.

Therefore 30 pieces of silver was the value placed on a servant’s life. Such is an offensively meager price! Yet through it the sinner found redemption. We see how fitting it is that this was the amount of blood money paid to Judas. Jesus is the Servant of the Lord, slain at the hands of the beast. He is the Prophet, misunderstood and undervalued by His people, but prized by the Potter. And He is the ransom price offered for the guilty. A ransom, infinitely more precious than silver or gold, as we read in 1 Peter 1:18-19 “For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect.”

The 'blood of the lamb' was a significant feature of the annual celebration of Passover, recalling as it did the time lambs blood was smeared on the doorposts of the Israelites, and the meal they ate together to prepare them for the journey. It is our tradition to share in what we call 'Holy Communion' a meal instituted by Jesus as He approached His sacrifice. Let us read 17-30.

 On the first day of the Festival of Unleavened Bread, the disciples came to Jesus and asked, "Where do you want us to make preparations for you to eat the Passover?" He replied, "Go into the city to a certain man and tell him, 'The Teacher says: My appointed time is near. I am going to celebrate the Passover with my disciples at your house.'"  So the disciples did as Jesus had directed them and prepared the Passover.  When evening came, Jesus was reclining at the table with the Twelve. And while they were eating, he said, "Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me."  They were very sad and began to say to him one after the other, "Surely you don't mean me, Lord?"  Jesus replied, "The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me.  The Son of Man will go just as it is written about him. But woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man! It would be better for him if he had not been born."  Then Judas, the one who would betray him, said, "Surely you don't mean me, Rabbi?" Jesus answered, "You have said so."  While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, "Take and eat; this is my body."  Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, "Drink from it, all of you.  This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.  I tell you, I will not drink from this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father's kingdom."  When they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.
The table that is meant to unite us has often been a source of division among us. Matthew suggests that such was even the case at the very first last supper. One of them was a traitor who had already taken thirty pieces of silver to betray Jesus. To all the others present this was an unthinkable possibility. They each proclaim their innocence. “Surely you don't mean me?”

Interestingly the faithful disciples all refer to Jesus as “Lord”, the term an insider would use of their teacher. However when Judas makes his protestation of innocence, Judas uses the term “Rabbi”, speaking as though he were an outsider to the group around the table. It is for this reason that Jesus answers in verse 25 “You have said so”. Judas's guilt is betrayed by a slip of his tongue.

Theologians over the centuries have speculated as to the motives of Judas and as to whether, if it was all God's plan, that he had any choice in the matter. It raises the great dilemma of divine sovereignty and human responsibility. The New Interpreter's Bible Commentary suggests 'God is not taken by surprise in the betrayal that leads to crucifixion; it goes according to the divine plan expressed in Scripture. But this does not relieve the burden of human responsibility. Matthew does not parcel out the responsibility for Jesus’ death between God and humanity: God is fully sovereign; humanity is fully responsible.'

Such a view appears to harmonize with Matthew's text, for Jesus appears to be both regretful, (Woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man!) but also warning Judas of the consequences of  his action (It would be better for him if he had not been born). No matter how we seek to understand it the discussion is fraught with the kind of 'What if?” questions that are impossible to answer. What if Judas had changed his mind? What if God could have done things a different way? What if Judas thought he was doing the right thing? (which he probably did!)

In the midst of all these questions come words that are some of the most familiar of all to those who gather around the table. Jesus takes bread and says “This is my Body”. Takes the cup after supper saying 'Drink from it, all of you”. The language and actions are rich in symbolism. It is beyond the  scope of our current study to go into great depth as to how the Passover celebration relates to our Eucharistic celebrations.

What I find unique about Matthew's account is that the mystery of the sacrament is placed in the context of deep life questions about the way God works and how much we are responsible for what we do. None of these questions find resolution.... and yet somehow around the table we are nurtured for the journey and inspired to sing God's praise. The section finishes with one of the few references to music in Matthew's gospel...'When they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.'

Traditionally the Passover music was based around the Hallel Psalms 113-118. Bear in mind what Jesus is about to face. As part of the liturgy Last Supper, at some points in the liturgy Jesus would have sung some of the following words from Psalm 116, that in retrospect had deep meaning.

    The snares of death encompassed me,
    The pangs of Sheol laid hold on me;
    I suffered distress and anguish.
    Then I called on the name of the LORD;
    "O LORD, I beg you, save my life!"
    ..For you have delivered my soul from death,
        my eyes from tears,
        my feet from stumbling;
    I walk before the LORD in the land of the living...

    What shall I render to the LORD
    For all his bounty to me?
    I will lift up the cup of salvation
     And call on the name of the LORD..

    O LORD, I am your servant;
    I am your servant, the son of your handmaid
    You have loosed my bonds.
    I will offer you the sacrifice of thanksgiving...

    (Psalm 116:3-4, 8-9, 12-13, 16-17)

This is remarkable. Not only does it reveal the script of Jesus' own anguish and passion, it also links salvation not just to His death but to 'the cup of salvation.' He refers to the sacrifice offered as a 'sacrifice of thanksgiving'. In Hebrew, this word is 'todah'. The common Greek translation of 'todah' is,  'eucharistia', from which we derive the word 'eucharist', our thank-offering for deliverance from death.

As they arrive out the Mount of Olives the final countdown continues to tick away. There are further disquieting words that the disciples need to hear. Verses 31-35

 Then Jesus told them, "This very night you will all fall away on account of me, for it is written: "'I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.'  But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee."  Peter replied, "Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will."  "Truly I tell you," Jesus answered, "this very night, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times."  But Peter declared, "Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you." And all the other disciples said the same.
The words Jesus speaks about rising again and going ahead to Galilee don't even register with Peter. Peter is focused on his own loyalty and in an act of true bravado exclaims “No matter what the others do, I'll never let you down!' Pride comes before a fall. Yet even this is preparing Peter for the leadership role he will have in the future church that will not be truly birthed until Pentecost. We'll look at Peter's denials a little further on, but right now there's a more important task. Prayer. Read 36 thru 46.

 Then Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to them, "Sit here while I go over there and pray."  He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, "My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me."  Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, "My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will."  Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. "Couldn't you men keep watch with me for one hour?" he asked Peter. "Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak."  He went away a second time and prayed, "My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done."  When he came back, he again found them sleeping, because their eyes were heavy.  So he left them and went away once more and prayed the third time, saying the same thing.  Then he returned to the disciples and said to them, "Are you still sleeping and resting? Look, the hour has come, and the Son of Man is delivered into the hands of sinners.  Rise! Let us go! Here comes my betrayer!"

Some commentators suggest the the victory of Jesus over death and suffering was achieved in the Garden of Gethsemane rather than on the Cross.  It was at Gethsemane that Jesus wrestled with the will of God. The passage may remind us of the Old Testament story of Jacob who wrestles with an angel before he can go any further with his particular mission.

The nature of this struggle is the words 'Yet not as I will, but as you will.' Jesus pleads with His Father God three times, “Is there not some other way that all I have come to do can take place? Is there no way around this suffering I must endure?” He uses the sacramental language of the cup...  we refer to our communion cup as the 'blood of Christ'... is it not possible that this cup can be removed?

His actions and His words reflect a deep, deep struggle. He is in agony. He throws Himself on the ground. The struggle overwhelms Him to the point that it threatens His life... 'My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.' It is through this struggle that the resolve to follow through comes to Him. Before Gethsemane none of them are ready to face the Cross, not even Jesus. After Gethsemane it appears Jesus is once more in a place where , whatever happens, we will know it is the will of God.

The passage underlies the importance of prayer. And the sting in the tale is the fact that in this story, we are not Jesus, we are the disciples. We are the ones who cannot apply ourselves. We are the ones who sleep rather than stay awake and alert. The disciples time would come.  But not yet. They still did not truly appreciate the nature of the struggle. But that was all about to change. Read verses 47 thru 58.

While he was still speaking, Judas, one of the Twelve, arrived. With him was a large crowd armed with swords and clubs, sent from the chief priests and the elders of the people.  Now the betrayer had arranged a signal with them: "The one I kiss is the man; arrest him."  Going at once to Jesus, Judas said, "Greetings, Rabbi!" and kissed him.  Jesus replied, "Do what you came for, friend." Then the men stepped forward, seized Jesus and arrested him.  With that, one of Jesus' companions reached for his sword, drew it out and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear.  "Put your sword back in its place," Jesus said to him, "for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.  Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?"  In that hour Jesus said to the crowd, "Am I leading a rebellion, that you have come out with swords and clubs to capture me? Every day I sat in the temple courts teaching, and you did not arrest me.  But this has all taken place that the writings of the prophets might be fulfilled." Then all the disciples deserted him and fled.  Those who had arrested Jesus took him to Caiaphas the high priest, where the teachers of the law and the elders had assembled.  But Peter followed him at a distance, right up to the courtyard of the high priest. He entered and sat down with the guards to see the outcome.

'Welcome to the Judas World'  
(a poem that contrasts the ways of this world with the life of Judas)

Welcome to the Judas world, the world of the betrayers,
This stage of compromise and fear, upon which we are the players.

Welcome to the Judas world, where nobodies a sinner,
Where the only thing that matters, is that you end up as the winner.

Welcome to the Judas world, where money sure speaks loud,
Where it's easier to rob the poor, than go against the crowd.

Welcome to the Judas world, where the upright, bold and true,
Hide behind their painted masks, what they really want to do.

Welcome to the Judas world, where justice is trampled underfoot,
Where the politicians can be bought, and the religion is corrupt.

Welcome to the Judas world, where a kiss is not enough,
Where tokens of affection, are designed to call your bluff.

Welcome to the Judas world, where God offers the Christ,
But we strip Him of all meaning and crucify His life.

Welcome to the Judas world, where hangs a noose upon a tree,
Where a world bent upon suicide, will fulfill it's destiny.

Welcome to the Judas world, where life is very cheap,
Where blood that spills upon the field...
Betrays the words we speak.

Betrayed by the kiss of a friend, Jesus does nothing to resist arrest. In the Garden He has accepted that this is what must happen. He points out to the crowd how ludicrous the actions of those arresting Him actually were. Arriving with a hit squad as though He were some armed and dangerous terrorist  was what we may today classify as 'Unnecessary Force'. Ironically if they truly knew who they were dealing with they would have known that there were resources available to Him that were beyond their imagining. 'Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?'

When one of His disciples (traditionally Peter) attempts to put some meat on the promise that they would never betray Him, they are told to put their sword back in it's place and we hear Jesus saying "for all who draw the sword will die by the sword”… a statement that has been adopted by proponents of non-violence ever since.

The darkness deepens. What we witness next is a travesty of justice and an indictment on our human ability to descend into unimaginable depths of cruelty and inhumanity. Read 59 thru 68.

The chief priests and the whole Sanhedrin were looking for false evidence against Jesus so that they could put him to death.  But they did not find any, though many false witnesses came forward. Finally two came forward  and declared, "This fellow said, 'I am able to destroy the temple of God and rebuild it in three days.'"  Then the high priest stood up and said to Jesus, "Are you not going to answer? What is this testimony that these men are bringing against you?"  But Jesus remained silent. The high priest said to him, "I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God."  "You have said so," Jesus replied. "But I say to all of you: From now on you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven."  Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, "He has spoken blasphemy! Why do we need any more witnesses? Look, now you have heard the blasphemy.  What do you think?" "He is worthy of death," they answered.  Then they spit in his face and struck him with their fists. Others slapped him and said, "Prophesy to us, Messiah. Who hit you?"

This is a complete travesty of a trial. The verdict of guilty has already been determined. The sentence of death has already been passed. The treatment the prisoner receives was way beyond anything that was acceptable. Even back then, in a court of law, being spat upon and beaten was never allowed. It is hardly surprising that Jesus says absolutely nothing. As trumped up charges are dismissed and the accusations become more absurd He has the dignity not to respond. There are times when saying nothing has far more power than any word that can be spoken.

But when it comes to the true matter at hand, which as Matthew has told us from the start, is a conflict of two Kingdoms, the Kingdom of God and the kingdoms of the earth, Jesus speaks out. And He does so in a way that enmeshes His accusers. When asked if He is the Son of God, He implies that they know very well who He is. “You have said so” are the words in our text. Lest they are in any doubt about that He prophesies that there will come a day when all be would revealed and they would be found to have been on the wrong side of the equation. “You will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.” They see this statement as being all the evidence they need to proclaim Him a blasphemer worthy of the death penalty.

Of all the many forms of prejudice and hatred that exist in our world it is tragically true that some of the worst of it comes from within religion. The most abhorrent crimes of humanity against humanity, from the Christian Crusades of the Dark Ages to the Fundamentalist Muslims who attacked the Twin Towers, go beyond rationality and embrace a deplorable tolerance of inhumanity and violence in service of some other earthly greater cause. No wonder the atheists of our day ridicule religion and accuse theistic belief as being the root of all evil.

But that is not the whole story. The power of these passion narratives is that they show us both the best and the worse we are capable of. We see the Kingdom of God at work in Jesus, the kingdoms of the earth at work in almost everybody around Him, be they His closest friends or His religious and political opponents.  The lines are drawn. The final countdown has begun.

Throughout this harrowing account we are also given an unfolding and very human story about Peter. Peter, who was once known as Simon, but receives the far more inspiring name that we would probably translate as 'The Rock' or  'Rocky'. Peter who has been there at some of the most significant moments of Jesus ministry, on mountain tops, in the valleys, in the garden. Peter, upon whose confession of faith the church shall be built and the gates of hell shall never prevail against it. Peter who proclaims his unfailing allegiance. Peter who seeks to take on the whole a mob with a sword. Peter who promises never to deny his master. Let us read read 69-75

 Now Peter was sitting out in the courtyard, and a servant girl came to him. "You also were with Jesus of Galilee," she said.  But he denied it before them all. "I don't know what you're talking about," he said.  Then he went out to the gateway, where another servant girl saw him and said to the people there, "This fellow was with Jesus of Nazareth."  He denied it again, with an oath: "I don't know the man!"  After a little while, those standing there went up to Peter and said, "Surely you are one of them; your accent gives you away." Then he began to call down curses, and he swore to them, "I don't know the man!" Immediately a rooster crowed.  Then Peter remembered the word Jesus had spoken: "Before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times." And he went outside and wept bitterly. (Mat 26:1-75 NIV)

Peter is compromised. He's fearful. The one who would take on an army single handed is now afraid of the maid who simply asks, “Weren't you one of those traveling with Jesus?” He claims absolutely no connection with Jesus, as though the very suggestion was an absurdity. He moves out to the Gateway Anther maid makes him afraid as she says to those around her, “I saw him with my own eyes. He's one of those disciples”. Peter gets really mad. He denies it, with an oath, (which probably meant he swore at her) “I don't know the man!”

Finally they all start asking questions. “Yes, you do. We saw you. You were there!” This time, as he answers, his accent gives him away. This is of course, something I can totally identify with. Being an Englishman in Maryland (by way of Liverpool, Wales, West Virginia and Long Island) as soon as I open my mouth folk are pretty darn sure I'm not a native of these parts!

Peter remains obstinate. Once you start on a trail of lies it's hard to stop. 'Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive'. But then the rooster cries and Peter remembers exactly what Jesus had told him. 'You will deny me three times before the cock crows.'

And he's broken. Peter, the guys kind of guy, openly weeps.  As predicted by the prophets, the Shepherd is being led to the slaughter and the sheep are being scattered.

Next time? It just keeps going downhill! Events take their course. We witness the passion of the Christ. Kingdoms collide and we are left wondering how it's all going to end. Twenty Seven is another long chapter. As with this chapter, if we try and over explain it, somehow the story loses it's power. As we proceed though these chapters let us simply allow the word of God to speak to us, whatever God wishes us to hear!

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